Though a lot can change in 149 games, it’s not a great sign when you drop an ugly game to a Pirates team that was expected to hover around 100 losses this season. The Cubs are now under .500 for the first time all season and they’ve six games on the road against the Braves and Brewers once they finish up the last three games of this homestand.
Things don’t get any easier once they return to Wrigley, as the White Sox and Dodgers come to visit before the Cubs hit the road to face the Padres. They really need to capitalize on the remaining games against the Pirates and they need to do so again in mid-May during a stretch of 14 straight games against bad teams. No one expects the Cubs to suddenly morph into world-beaters, but treading water isn’t too much to ask.
Of course, the idea that a mediocre club can break into an expanded postseason field might be squashed by more competitive divisions in the East and West. Three teams in each of the other NL groups have at least a 40% chance at this point, whereas the Cubs currently sit third in the Central with 6.9% odds. As nice as that is, it’s lower than all but five other teams in the league.
It’s also just 1% lower than last week in spite of dropping three of their last four games, which is more about the Cubs not really being contenders. When you’re dealing with single digits, there’s just not much room to move either way. That said, there have been times already this season when the Cubs have shown us glimpses of a team that could make some real noise. There have also been too many games, the last two in particular, that make even 6.9% seem lofty.
Perhaps most damning is the failure of their starters to work deep into games, like, at all. Kyle Hendricks is the only starter through 13 games to record an out in the 6th inning, and that was on Opening Day. Justin Steele, Marcus Stroman, and Drew Smyly have completed five frames once apiece, with each of those efforts coming in their first starts.
Even if the short spring training is a foundational reason for lower pitch counts across the league, you’d expect pitchers to be going deeper as the season wears on. With just over a week left before rosters contract back to 26 players, the Cubs are putting themselves in a precarious position when it comes to covering enough innings over the course of the summer.
Rain gave them an extra day off against Milwaukee and shortened their finale with the Rays, but that aforementioned 14-game stretch next month includes no scheduled breaks. Then they get a day off before playing 11 games in nine days, with doubleheaders against the Brewers (May 30 at home) and Cardinals (June 4, also at home). They’ll play 30 games in 31 days from June 10 – July 10, with mainly playoff hopefuls as opponents.
Maybe I should change the name of this column to “Quantifying Nope,” because it sure feels like that’s what I’m doing here. Listen, there are a lot of things the Cubs do well and I believe they will have several bright spots this summer even if the record isn’t indicative of improvement. And who knows, maybe they’ll even get those odds moving back in the right direction again.